Mantle, £12.99, 303pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Child Who, By Simon Lelic

 

Men fear death as children fear the dark, said Francis Bacon. In Simon Lelic's provocative (and contentious) The Child Who, children and death are chillingly combined in a juvenile dispenser of murder. A lengthy lineage of British writers has specialised in malevolent children: John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, for instance, renders the prepubescent killers alien and "other". To some degree (without relying on supernatural or science-fiction trappings) that is what Lelic does here.

The eponymous child is a mystery – but more tellingly so is the instinct that drives a provincial solicitor to risk the destruction of his own family in defence of the boy. The author's earlier books, Rupture and The Facility, showed a readiness to tackle deeply uncomfortable issues; the former dealt with a teacher murdering his pupils and a colleague in a school shooting. Lelic's unconventional take on bullying and alienated children now appears a dry run for this new novel, in which the reader's capacity for either outrage or sympathy is uneasily manipulated by the author. Is Lelic's child here "evil"? Or is that word a useful catch-all term for the inexplicable?

Daniel is an unassuming 12-year-old boy who has committed a terrible crime: he has savagely killed a schoolmate, a young girl. Solicitor Leo Curtice is assigned the job of defending him, but his task is to have a seismic effect on his own life. Leo is under no illusions about the horror of the crime, but shows an intuitive sympathy for the boy, perceiving that Daniel is a damaged, vulnerable victim himself.

But extending sympathy to a perpetrator of abuse is dangerous territory. In parallel with a real-life case, the reader is reminded of the hate-filled perceptions of the murderers of Jamie Bulger. We are shown the effect on the solicitor's wife and fragile daughter as public opinion hardens towards Leo. The central concerns of the book are the sacrifices that must be made in the pursuit of an ideal such as Leo's. And it might be argued that Leo's motives remain frustratingly opaque.

One of the most intriguing things about Lelic's intelligent novel is its steadfast refusal to take sides. Is Leo right to risk the love and respect of his own family in working out a personal agenda, however laudable? Lelic places such conclusions within the individual conscience of the reader. And that, as much as anything else, shows him as a writer to whom attention must be paid.

Barry Forshaw's 'Death in a Cold Climate' is published by Palgrave Macmillan

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